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Cancer Biology Graduate Interdisciplinary Program

Overview: 

Cancer biology is the comparative study of normal versus cancerous cells and tissues. The discipline includes the study of normal and tumor cell biology, molecular biology and biochemistry, cancer causation and biological rationale for cancer prevention and treatment. The education of scientists in cancer biology is needed because, even though cancer biology incorporates many diverse disciplines, relevant contributions from these disciplines can be made only if the scientists involved have had specific education in the biology of cancer. The curriculum of the program is also designed to ensure that the students have the necessary background in one or more areas of related fundamental sciences to enable them to do original research. The goal of the Cancer Biology Graduate Interdisciplinary Program (GIDP) is to provide formal graduate education in the important discipline of cancer biology and award a doctorate degree in Cancer Biology. The ultimate goal in training these Cancer Biology Ph.D. students is to provide a cadre of scientists who have gained the required knowledge and research experience so that they can participate in finding solutions to the problems associated with human cancer.

The approach to this training involves didactic instruction and laboratory-based research training. The curriculum for the didactic lectures is designed to thoroughly acquaint students with the body of knowledge that has been derived from experiments on the production, properties, prevention and treatment of cancer and to ensure that the students have the necessary background in one or more related fundamental sciences to enable them to do original research. The curriculum has been changed to include instruction in the areas of clinical oncology including cancer diagnosis, pathology and strategies for cancer treatment. This instruction is in the form of a required two unit course in clinical cancer biology.

Forty-five Cancer Biology GIDP faculty hold appointments in 17 academic departments (Arid Lands, Biomedical Engineering, Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Chemistry/Biochemistry, Immunobiology, Medicine, Medicine (Phx COM), Molecular and Cellular Biology, Nutritional Science, Pediatrics, Pathology, Pharmacology, Pharmacology Toxicology, Pharmacy, Radiation Oncology, Radiology, Surgery) and 5 colleges (Agriculture and Life Sciences, Medicine, Science, Pharmacy, Phoenix COM). The program also has 8 Clinical Affiliates. These affiliates may serve on committees but do not have active laboratories or external support.

Academic “rites of passage” are instrumental in assessing student progress at the graduate level. Successful completion of the comprehensive exams and PhD dissertation are among the most important criteria of scholarly achievement. In addition to demonstrating graduate students’ understanding of the important topics in cancer biology, the PhD dissertation provides the opportunity to examine students’ abilities to conceptualize, organize and execute research, to think critically and productively at several levels, and to communicate effectively through writing at a professional level.

Expected Learning Outcomes: 
  1. Students will have a broad understanding of cancer biology as a discipline, the technologies used in cancer research and translational research approaches.
  2. Students will demonstrate the ability to formulate hypotheses, design experiments, collect scientific data related to their research area and analyze, interpret and critique the data.
  3. Students will effectively communicate scientific findings and the significance and impact of these findings, through oral presentations.
  4. Students will effectively communicate scientific findings and the significance and impact of these findings, through written works including published articles in peer-reviewed journals.
  5. Students will understand ethical and professional responsibility and integrity in research as required by the National Institutes of Health.
Assessment Activities: 

The program uses multiple activities to assess progress towards learning outcomes, as summarized in Table 1 and described further below.

Table 1. Assessment activities used to measure progress towards learning outcomes

Expected Learning Outcome

Assessment Activities

Outcome 1

Knowledge of Cancer Biology

Performance in core courses: CBIO 552, 553, 561 & 596H

Progress on Individual Development Plans

Oral presentations for the Cancer Biology colloquium, comprehensive exam and final dissertation

Written communications including grant applications, manuscripts for publication and dissertation

Outcome 2

Research Design & interpretation

Performance in core courses: CBIO 553, 595C, 597A & 597C

Progress on Individual Development Plans

Oral presentations for the Cancer Biology colloquium, comprehensive exam, final dissertation, and research group meetings

Written communications including grant applications, comprehensive exam, manuscripts for publication and dissertation

Outcome 3

Oral science communication

Performance in core courses: CBIO 553 and 595C

Progress on Individual Development Plans

Oral presentations for the Cancer Biology colloquium, comprehensive exam, final dissertation, and research group meetings

Outcome 4

Written science communication

Performance in core courses: CBIO 553, 597C

Progress on Individual Development Plans

Written communications including grant applications, comprehensive exam, manuscripts for publication and dissertation

Outcome 5

Research Ethics

CBIO695a Research Conference held each week as part of ethics requirement

Completion of course on research integrity and ethics

Performance in Cancer Biology core courses: The graduate students’ progress towards the first four learning outcomes is assessed in part through the seven CBIO courses required for degree completion. Students must earn at least a grade of B in these courses. Descriptions of these core courses and the learning outcomes that they support are as follows:

  1. Cancer Biology (CBIO 552) – familiarizes the student with the concepts that serve as the foundation for our current view of cancer as a genetic disease.  Major topics include:  the multistep model of carcinogenesis, the molecular basis of cancer, cancer detection and diagnosis, and cancer therapeutics. (Learning Outcome 1)
  2. Advanced Topics in Cancer Biology (CBIO 553) - explores current issues in cancer biology with an emphasis is on the development of skills in data analysis and interpretation, proposal writing, and oral presentation.  Student become familiar with seminal findings and classic fundamental research in cancer biology, along with modern approaches and methods used to address timely areas in cancer biology. (Learning Outcomes 1 – 4)
  3. Cancer Biology Clinical Experience (CBIO 561) – students learn about the most common types of cancer and the clinical disciplines that are responsible for diagnosing and treating patients with cancer. Course activities include a series of 14 lectures by clinicians on common types of cancer, attendance at six cancer clinics and two multidisciplinary case discussion conferences (tumor board). (Learning Outcome 1)
  4. Cancer Biology Colloquium (CBIO 595C) – this course provides each student with the opportunity to effectively communicate research findings to faculty and other students through a formal seminar. Students are required to further participate by critiquing the other students’ presentations and raising relevant questions. (Learning Outcomes 2 and 3)
  5. Cancer Biology Seminar Series (CBIO 596H) – in this course, students hear University faculty and national and international invited speakers present seminars on their cancer-related research programs.  (Learning Outcome 1)
  6. Experimental Design (CBIO 597A) - provides students with the conceptual tools needed to conduct research in experimental biology.  Students develop the ability to design experiments, analyze data, interpret results, formulate hypotheses, and interpret and organize research results. (Learning Outcome 2)
  7. Grant writing for graduate students (CBIO 597C) - provides students with the concepts needed to develop a competitive grant application. The course includes an overview of the overall grant structure, the sections of a completed application, the intent and key information that should be included in each section.  Emphasis is placed on designing a coherent, logical story that is well justified and supported with preliminary data.  (Learning Outcome 2 and 4)

Annual Progress on Individual Development Plans (IDP): This document is prepared by each student and reviewed on an annual basis by the student’s mentor, the CBIO Student Progress Committee and the Program Chair and Vice Chair. The template is provided in Appendix A. The IDP is designed to have each student assess his/her progress towards becoming a scientist. Sections include: a description of the student’s research project (aims, experimental design, significance and cancer relevance); career goals (long and short-term); self-assessment of skills, including knowledge of the field, oral and written science communication, and leadership; and a progress report (mastering research techniques, research discoveries, published manuscripts, attendance at national meetings, interpersonal and networking skills). The students use a scale from 1 – 5 in the self-assessment of the skills, with 1 indicating fully proficient and 5 indicating not proficient. The discussions with the mentor and the CBIO Student Progress Committee allow each student to receive feedback on how s/he is developing as a graduate student and scientist. (Learning Outcomes 1 – 4)

Oral science communication: Over the course of the graduate program, each student has multiple opportunities to practice oral communication of science through formal and informal presentations. The formal presentations include each student’s annual turn in the Cancer Biology Colloquium, the oral comprehensive exam and the final dissertation defense. For colloquium presentations, each student receives written evaluations completed by their peers in the audience and by a faculty evaluator (Appendix B).  The peer evaluations are returned to the student.  The faculty evaluation is kept on file in the Cancer Biology office. The student’s skill at presenting orally in the comprehensive exam (Appendix C) and the final dissertation defense is evaluated by each member of the dissertation committee (Appendix D). Graduate students also practice oral communication of science through informal presentations at their mentors’ research group meetings. Their skill in this environment is assessed through the IDP process. (Learning Outcomes 1-3).

Written science communication: Over the course of the graduate program, each student has multiple opportunities to practice written communication of science. This begins in the core courses CBIO 553, 597A and 597C as described above. For the written portion of the comprehensive exam, students write an NIH-style grant proposal. Students are expected to publish their dissertation research in peer-reviewed journals, and contribute significantly to the writing of those manuscripts. The final opportunity to practice science writing is the dissertation. The development of the students’ skill in written science communication is assessed through: grades in the core courses; the dissertation committee members’ evaluation of the written comprehensive exam (Appendix C) and dissertation (Appendix D), the IDP process, and successful grant applications and publications in peer-reviewed journals.

Assessment Findings: 

Learning Outcome 1: Students will have a broad understanding of cancer biology as a discipline, the technologies used in cancer research and translational research approaches.

Evaluation: The current CBIO students have gained an understanding of cancer biology based on all having received satisfactory grades in the program’s core courses. The most informative assessment of progress toward this learning outcome appears to be the students’ ratings of their progress as seen in their IDPs (Table 2). As part of the IDP, students provide a self-score on a scale of one to five, with one indicating the highest level of proficiency. A comparison of the results with the students grouped according to the number of years in the program shows that the first year students report an average score of 4.0 for knowledge of cancer biology. The average score moves closer to 1.0 with each additional year of time in the program. Thus, the program is meeting the learning outcome of providing students with good knowledge base in the field of cancer biology.

Table 2: CBIO students’ self-assessment of progress, as reported on IDPs

 

Average Rating on a Five-Point Scale with One as Best

Years in the Program (No. of students)

1: Knowledge of Cancer Biology

2: Research Design/Interpret.

3: Oral Communication

4: Written Communication

1 (n=3)

4.0

2.8

3.0

3.3

2 (n=6)

2.5

2.0

2.7

2.3

3 (n=8)

2.4

2.6

2.6

2.8

4 (n=1)

2

2

2

3

>4 (n=2)

1.5

1.0

1.0

1.5

The written evaluation of each student’s colloquium presentations, which is completed by a faculty member, was changed considerably in 2016 from an extensive form to one highlighting key elements of the presentation corresponding to the program’s learning outcomes. Based on 11 student evaluations, this assessment activity is not discerning differences in students’ knowledge of cancer biology, as the average score given was 1.1 on the five-point scale with 1 being the best possible score.  Faculty assessments conducted following students’ comprehensive exams are a slightly more discerning. The program initiated this assessment activity in 2016 and the average score given for knowledge of cancer biology is 1.3 (n=8). We interpret the difference seen between students’ self-rating scores and those given by faculty ratings as indicating that faculty are likely scoring based on each student’s level in the program, whereas the students are rating themselves based on where they hope to be at the conclusion of the training.

Learning Outcome 2: Students will demonstrate the ability to formulate hypotheses, design experiments, collect scientific data related to their research area and analyze, interpret and critique the data.

Evaluation: The majority of students who are attracted to the CBIO GIDP have prior research experience. This is reflected in the self-reported scores for progress towards learning outcome 2, with students at all levels in the program giving an average above 3. As was seen for learning outcome 1, students who have spent more time in the program report scores closer to 1.  Faculty evaluations show average scores from the colloquium (n=12) and comprehensive exams (n=8) as 1.4 and 1.5, respectively.  The latter activity, in particular, tests the students’ ability to clearly present novel experiments and research ideas. Thus, the faculty members’ assessments are consistent with the program being effective at training students in research design and interpretation.

Learning Outcome 3: Students will effectively communicate scientific findings and the significance and impact of these findings, through oral presentations.

Evaluation:  The students’ self-ratings on skills at oral presentation show that they enter the program with some proficiency in this area (average of 3.0 on the five-point scale and continue to improve with time in training (Table 2). Average scores from faculty evaluations of colloquium presentations and their assessments of the students’ ability to respond to questions during the oral exams are 1.6 and 1.5, respectively. We conclude that the programs’ activities are providing the students with sufficient practice at communicating scientific findings through formal and informal oral presentations.

Learning Outcome 4: Students will effectively communicate scientific findings and the significance and impact of these findings, through written works including published articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Evaluation: Training in scientific writing needs to remain a focus of the program. The students who are early in their training judge themselves as less competent in this area as compared to the ability to conduct research and communicate science orally (Table 2). As they progress in their training, the self-rating scores improve, but even four years in the program, some students did not rate themselves as being fully proficient.

Learning Outcome 5: Students will understand ethical and professional responsibility and integrity in research as required by the National Institutes of Health.

Evaluation: All students completed coursework and individual mentored meetings to comply with the NIH requirement

Change in Response to Findings: 

This assessment process has pointed out consistent differences between students’ self-assessment and faculty evaluations for learning outcomes 1 through 4.  To improve the usefulness of faculty evaluations for measuring students’ progress, we plan to report back to the faculty on these assessment findings. We will encourage the faculty to adjust their scoring in order that a “1” indicates a fully proficient student at the end of the training period.

To keep a focus on the fourth learning outcome related to written science communication, we are developing a course focused on effective grant writing. Over a course of the semester, it will provide many opportunities for practicing science writing.  We will also begin tracking “in process” publications as well as published manuscripts, using the information provided by the students in their IDPs.

Updated date: Tue, 08/08/2017 - 12:08